“You cannot say I send off all the foreign workers, and then tomorrow we will be OK.”

Singapore needs talent to stand out in the world, he said. “And you can never have enough talent.”

While the prime minister acknowledged that Singaporeans have reasonable concerns over the social impact of the new arrivals, he pointed out that there are jobs – such as in construction – that Singaporeans do not want.

Singapore’s reliance on foreign workers in the construction sector came into the spotlight at the height of the pandemic, when a manpower crunch caused by border restrictions and Covid-19 quarantines led to delays for many housing projects.

In other sectors, more manpower is needed to perform the tasks on a larger scale – beyond the jobs that Singaporeans can fill, Lee said.

“And if I can have 10 per cent or 20 per cent more engineers or technicians or healthcare workers, I can do a lot more things, I will be more productive. But I cannot take away 10 per cent of people then become 10 per cent smarter and faster just on my own.”

On the concerns that people have about foreigners – such as dilution, values and social impact – the government has to “feel our way forward and go as far as politically can be supported”.

In Singapore, the city is the country – unlike other major cities such as London. So, there must be cohesion and a strong sense of value and identity, he said.

Bringing in foreigners can enrich the identity of Singapore society, Lee said.

“They bring talent, they bring experience, they bring a different perspective on things. But at the same time, you dilute that, at least temporarily, because they do not have the same background.”

He gave the example of Singaporean Chinese and Singaporean Indians being different from those arriving from China and India.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore needs foreign talent to stand out in the world. Photo: Bloomberg

Lee noted that some countries’ foreign talent strategies are not viable for the Singapore context. For instance, the United Arab Emirates brings in many foreigners, while using its wealth derived from its oil reserves to cater to its resident population.

But Singapore has to bring in talent “in a controlled way” which complements local workers and professionals rather than put them out of jobs, Lee said.

It also has to be done in a manner that does not dilute the country’s “social norms and mores and the way Singapore works, and cause frictions and conflict”, he added.

Apart from ensuring Singapore has enough infrastructure for foreign workers, other factors must also be considered, such as their avenues for entertainment on weekends, he noted.

“It is partly educating the people who come here that this is Singapore, please respect Singapore norms and some things you can do in your home country, please have a care and do not do them like that here.”

It is also crucial for Singaporeans to understand the importance of bringing in foreign talents, and to make the effort to be accommodating and welcoming, Lee said.

He also stressed that Singapore does not have “a lot of manoeuvring room” on this issue.

“Every now and again we have a debate in parliament, and the opposition goes – Sturm und Drang (a German term for storm and stress), ‘Why so many?’. And we say, well, do you want to cut it all off and let all the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have no foreign worker quota? And they say, ‘No, no, no, we do not mean that, we feel for SMEs too’,” said Lee.

Such a policy would affect not just employers but Singaporean workers in SMEs and multinational companies, where without the foreign worker presence, the firm would not be here, he explained.

“We have no choice but to work very hard to find ways we can have our cake and eat most of it.”

The issue of integrating foreign workers socially has been something Lee has been addressing for a while.

In his 2021 National Day Rally, he touched on the topic, saying that most work pass holders and their families actually fit in quite well.

“After living here for some years, some speak Singlish, others enjoy sambal belachan and even durian!” he said then.

At that time, Lee stressed that Singapore cannot give the impression it is becoming xenophobic and hostile to foreigners, as it would damage the country’s reputation as an international hub.

Citing the community of workers from India in Singapore now, Lee said Singaporeans notice their influx as the numbers are “not small”.

However, they are talented individuals and are very valuable to Singapore, and “we should welcome them as we manage the flow”, he added.

Lee also shared that outside India, Singapore has the biggest concentration of graduates from the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Management.

The two are the top institutions in India, and securing a place in one is comparable to getting into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University or Harvard University, he said.

Those professionals have formed associations in Singapore and hold functions from time to time. “If I can get such a pool, come here and work here, it is a tremendous plus for us.”

Lee also acknowledged the anxieties of older workers who are concerned about their job prospects.

“Statistically, your chances of working as an old person in Singapore are very good,” he said.

For employment rates by age, the figures for workers in their 50s and going into the late 60s are high and still rising and are “good compared to many other developed economies”, Lee said.

“Many people are working well into their 60s now and sometimes into their 70s, like me,” said Lee, who is 72 years old this year.

“And actually, happy to have that work because it gives you something to do. It is purposeful, it is not just earning the money, but I wake up in the morning, there is something I want to do in life.”

Singapore’s population is ageing rapidly. By 2030, about one in four Singaporeans will be aged 65 and above.

Lee said that with the shortage of workers in the Singapore economy, older workers should be valued and tapped on.

Jobs have to be adapted so that older workers can perform those roles, while workers need to be trained as they grow older so they can take up the new openings, he said.

“They may have to change careers because the industry has changed and the old job does not exist any more and they have to go to a reconfigured job or even change industries,” he said.

He cited the evolving role of bank tellers in the finance industry as an example.

“They sit there, you come, they smile, they chop your bank book, and then they do the transaction. But now, everybody is on ATMs,” he said.

Banks have been training tellers to redeploy them to other jobs within the system, instead of just letting them go. Some of them, for example, become customer service officers, shared Lee.

“You need them because ATMs are good, but you want a personal touch,” he said.

“If the ATM frustrates you and you press the help button, you want somebody smiling there, and not just – if you do not know how to press this button, press two. And then you are dealing with a robotic voice and you get very frustrated. They are there, a face comes up, smiles, says ‘How can I help you’ as a real person, and talks you through it.”

Lee said the jobs landscape will continue changing. For example, the advent of artificial intelligence may free up a real person from a particular task to do something else.

“We will work very hard to make sure that he or she can do something else,” he said.

He highlighted the SkillsFuture movement and the setting up of a dedicated organisation SkillsFuture Singapore, as part of national efforts in this area.

Lee also pointed to a S$4,000 (US$3,000) SkillsFuture grant in this year’s budget, which Singaporeans aged 40 and above will receive from this month. Younger Singaporeans will receive the same amount when they turn 40.

The S$4,000 will be more targeted in scope and can only be used for selected training programmes, Deputy Prime Minister Wong, who is also Finance Minister, announced in February.

This includes part-time and full-time diploma, post-diploma and undergraduate programmes, as well as courses for the Progressive Wage Model sectors, he said.

The existing basic tier of S$500 in credits can be used for a wide range of courses.

“It is not such a small amount of money, but it is a token of how seriously we take it and how much we want you to go and improve yourself and improve your opportunities,” Lee said.

This story was first published by CNA